After learning earlier this week that 400 refinery workers would be furloughed, Gloucester County now has received news of another economic blow - the closing of a U.S. Postal Service distribution facility in Logan Township.
Gloucester County Freeholder Director Stephen Sweeney yesterday called word of the potential job losses "real bad news."
Sunoco Inc. announced Tuesday that it would indefinitely idle its Eagle Point Refinery in West Deptford, which employs 400 full-time workers and hires hundreds of independent contractors. Its inventory would be drawn down over time and employees could be gone within six weeks, county officials said.
In addition, the Postal Service is planning to close the Philadelphia Logistics and Distribution Center, in Logan Township's Pureland Industrial Complex, by March, Sweeney said. The facility employs about 650 people, along with seasonal workers.
"To lose all those jobs in one shot, it's very hurtful," said Sweeney, who is also a state senator.
He said his office had received notice of the closing from the U.S. Postal Service. Sweeney said he had asked U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews' office to analyze whether the closing was justified.
Outside the nearly windowless, concrete postal building yesterday, few people came and went. A sign read, "Now Accepting Seasonal Applications." A clerk said the openings were only for the Christmas rush.
Gloucester County Director of Economic Development Lisa Morina said the county was "obviously sorting out everything. We're trying to figure out what the long-term outlook is," she said. "How many people will come into the unemployment ranks? Will [the losses] be phased in or happen all at once?"
Morina said the county would "let the workers know their rights so they understand what's available to them in benefits, where to get referrals, file unemployment claims, how to get retraining and craft resumes - all the components of the job search."
Morina said "the refinery and chemical process industry has been a mainstay in the county for a long time."
More than a dozen workers wearing matching royal-blue Sunoco coveralls somberly filed into lunch places in West Deptford and National Park yesterday.
They were quiet, saying they were not permitted to talk to reporters. One worker said he had been told to attend "an important meeting" late Tuesday afternoon, but had no inkling that the plant was being shuttered.
April Maska, an elementary schoolteacher who has lived across the street from Eagle Point for 32 years, said the plant had never closed before, despite having four different owners. Her husband worked there for 37 years before retiring, and now her stepdaughter is employed there.
"Refineries are your life," she said, calling herself a "refinery wife" who had to adapt to her husband's weekend shifts. She often attended company picnics and Easter egg hunts.
Maska, who was eating lunch at a Pat's Pizza restaurant in West Deptford with other Oak View School teachers, said she was still reeling from the news.
"I'm very sad to see Eagle Point go idle. We will lose the comfort of knowing that the refinery is there," Maska said, explaining how Sunoco contributed solar panels to a local school, contributed to the tax base, and was a major employer in the town.
Betty Okrem, a cashier at Bill and Eileen's, a mom-and-pop store located less than one mile from the plant, said the closing likely would have "a big effect on business."
"We have regulars who work there," she said. "They come in for coffee in the morning and then for lunch."
One is Bob Donahue of Upper Pittsgrove. A pipe fitter and job foreman for A.T. Chadwick Contractors, which maintains the docks, he expects a pink slip in six to eight weeks. "When the refinery shuts down, there won't be any traffic coming through the dock," he said.
The father of three children, ages 3, 5 and 9, said he then would have to return to the pipefitter's union and wait for another job. "That's the nature of our business," he said with a shrug.
"Maybe this will cut down on the pollution in the area," said Keith Newcomb, an unemployed West Deptford ironworker who was in the shop. "But I'd rather deal with the air than see anyone lose their job."
Gloucester County had an unemployment rate of 10 percent in August. The state and nation each had rates of 9.7 percent at the same time, according to labor statistics.
Displaced workers can find help at a state- and county-run career center at 215 Crown Point Rd., Thorofare. It's a one-stop location where they can look for employment opportunities, training, and benefits.
The state Labor Department is working to get a "rapid response team" either to the Sunoco site or in touch with displaced workers.
The teams - dispatched to help after large layoffs - help sign up people for unemployment benefits and explain what services are available at state career centers, said department spokesman Kevin Smith.
Smith said the teams typically tried to go on site while workers were still there, but this afternoon it was still unclear how long the plant would be open.
Smith said the department was still working out the details of where and when a response team would arrive.
The last of the postal employees is expected to leave the Logan facility by the end of February, said William Boyle, president of the South Jersey Area Local, American Postal Workers Union, in a letter to Gloucester County Assemblywoman Celeste Riley.
"This postal facility performed the centralized distribution of Priority Mail," he wrote. "It is not your typical post office where you would go to mail or pick up letters, purchase stamps or make other transactions.
"Therefore, residents of the community will not be affected to the point that they'll have to go to another post office to make their transactions. The effect will be felt by the local businesses in the immediate area."
Boyle said the postal workers "could be placed in other postal facilities up to 100 miles away. Whether some employees go that far is not certain at this time, but one thing is certain, they will not be relocated nearby."